“Who’s Right In The End?” Matthew 25:31-46
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 7, 2019
Jesus had just finished telling parables that would have been hard to hear, parables with lots of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He had predicted that he would be killed by the authorities, though his followers fought him tooth-and-nail on the point. By the time Jesus finished telling these parables his followers were feeling pretty beat down. Tired. Scared. Anxious. Angry, maybe. Wanting to know what was next. Maybe wanting to just get over whatever was next: “OK, we get it, it’s going to be hard. If it has to be that way, could we at least get it over with?” They were weary of waiting. And like most weary people I imagine they were starting to squabble a bit with each other and within themselves, wondering why they got themselves into all this mess in the first place and what’s the point?
I wonder if we too, Lyonsville, are followers of Jesus who are weary of waiting. Wanting to know what’s next, whatever it may be, in our daily lives, in our life as church. After all, as the 19th century French novelist Honoré de Balzac once said, “most miseries lie in anticipation.”
Have you ever read a book that is getting especially difficult, and flipped to see how it ends? Sometimes knowing the ending is the only thing that gets me through hard stories. So, perhaps picking up on the weary misery of his followers, Jesus jumped to the end of the story, giving them something better to anticipate.
In the end, Jesus says, I’ll come back to judge all the people of the world. And just like you shepherds separate the sheep from the goats at the end of each day, I’ll do that with the people, separating the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous are those who fed me when I was hungry, who gave me drink when I was thirsty, who welcomed me when I was a stranger, clothed me when I was naked, took care of me when I was sick, and visited me in prison.
They’ll be confused, asking “when, Lord, did we do these things for you?” And I’ll tell them: “when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” But the unrighteous ignored me. They fed nobody, they left me naked and sick. They’ll be surprised because they didn’t see me in the suffering people around them – my people. Their uncaring ways will come back to them. They’ll live in an unending fire of misery.
Parts of this story can be troubling, which I’ll get to. But I believe this parable was designed to encourage Jesus’ weary followers. After all, the works of mercy Jesus mentioned: feeding, clothing, offering drink, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned – that’s exactly the sort of thing they did all the time. It was in many ways the bread and butter of their faith. So as they heard this story they were probably pretty sure they were the sheep – the good guys. The surprise for them was probably when Jesus said when you do these things for others, you are actually doing them for me.
This story offered encouragement that no matter how bad things get in the now, the future is in God’s hands. Encouragement to “keep on keeping on.” For yes, it’s true that there is so much that is uncertain about the future and God’s promises for that future: we “know neither the day nor the hour,” Jesus said just verses earlier. But Jesus has given us plenty to do in the meantime, for there is plenty suffering in the world, no lack of people in need of compassion. When you act with mercy and justice, he’s saying, you can’t go wrong. You are with me, and the future is in my hands even if the now is so, very very hard. Take heart.
But the story isn’t nearly as fun for the goats, or for those of us who aren’t sure where we fit in it all, or who aren’t sure it’s really possible to be all good like the sheep or all bad like the goats. Those of us who sometimes do that stuff Jesus told us to do, and other times look the other way. And if you don’t know what to do with the eternal fire of punishment stuff, that’s okay too. Matthew’s gospel tends to see things in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. This can be very helpful in making clear points, if we remember that it’s good to see gray too.
The broad sweep of scripture and tradition suggests to me that judgment is not one moment at the end of time, but a process each and every day. God sees into our hearts and sees that mixture of the good stuff and the mess, and in judging God offers to help grow the good stuff and help clean up the mess. Rooted in the work of the Protestant Reformer John Calvin and many others, I see the fires of hell as metaphor for the misery we bring upon ourselves when we grow the mess instead of the goodness and end up far from God. The point is not to condemn, but to encourage us to grow the good stuff and in doing so to grow closer to God
One way or another this is a story Jesus told to encourage his discouraged followers, as they stepped into an uncertain future. For Jesus’ followers then and now live in a deeply conflicted world. A world that nailed Jesus to a cross. There are so many conflicting paths, and it can seem impossible to find the way forward. It’s tempting to run from suffering rather than to meet it with brave compassion. But those who take that path, Calvin warns, “are so intoxicated by their fading prosperity that they imagine they will always be happy.” That path that takes you far from God and from your fellow human. That way lies misery.
There is another option, Jesus says: You can seek to be transformed in the light of God, growing in love, mercy, and faith and cleaning up some of the mess that gets in the way. You can choose to meet suffering with compassion. When we do, we are with Jesus. Calvin reminds us this should be motivation enough: “We must be prodigiously sluggish,” he says, “if compassion be not drawn from our bowels by this statement, that Christ is either neglected or honored in the person of those who need our assistance.” That’s quite the image, but it makes a point. Our faith can and should motivate us in the deepest places of our being. For when we meet suffering with compassion, we are investing in a better future for ourselves and generations to follow, even if it seems more difficult at the time. Someday, someway, somehow, things will work out as they should. So we don’t need to worry about the end of time. We don’t need to worry about the details of what will happen and whether everything will be okay. We need only worry about being present for our neighbor who is in need.
Here are Lyonsville we face an uncertain future but we continue to be in ministry each and every day. We’re still feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and clothing the naked. We’re still making sure prepared for disasters and emergencies. We’re still prayerfully imagining a church structure that supports our ministry. We’re still singing and praying and laughing and crying. And we’re exploring some new possibilities for ministry both within and in the community around these four walls. We’re wondering with school and community leaders how to better support our community members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. We’re exploring new ways of forming and growing faith, including possibly starting podcasts people can listen to during the week.
I had to decide a month or two ago to pursue new ways of being in ministry even when the future is so uncertain. We do not need to know our future, because Jesus has given us plenty to do in the now. An uncertain future is a bad excuse for ignoring God’s call today. The future is in God’s hands.
Jesus offered this story as a guidepost for his followers. And it can be a guidepost in our lives today, weary from a long journey, surrounded with difficult conflict and deepening struggles, as we grapple with a future yet unknown. We only know the now. And in the now, there is plenty of good work to be done, with Jesus by our side.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
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